Saturday, October 29, 2011

Servant Leaders

There’s a wonderful quote by the great Carmelite foundress, mystic, and saint, Teresa of Avila, in her autobiography which says: “Life is spent in an uncomfortable inn.” That Teresa and most, if not all the saints, experienced this should be a comforting reassurance for you and me, particularly at this time of unsettledness and confusion in our nation and in the Church.
It so happens that we celebrate the feast of All Saints on Tuesday of this week, providing a perfect background for our reflection on Matthew’s Gospel passage today (23:1-12). One of the Church’s seven principal feasts, All Saints Day honors all the saints, or holy ones, known and unknown. Its originated as early as the 4th century, when Christians began to honor notably holy people, particularly martyrs, witnesses to the Christian faith.  In the 7th century, the Western Emperor, Phocas, gave the ancient Pantheon, a temple to all the pagan gods, and which was and still is located on the Piazza della Rotunda in Rome, to the Church. Pope Boniface IV consecrated it, dedicating it to “Santa Maria della Rotunda” and all the martyrs. Eventually, the feast was fixed on November 1 for the entire Church. Thomas Cranmer, author of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549, retained in the calendar only those feasts of saints mentioned in the New Testament, as well as this feast of All Saints.
The Church is holy not only because a few of her members are held up as saints, but because each and all of us who are the Church are called to be channels of God’s holiness, life, and presence to one another. Recall the Genesis story, where the Creator is described as pausing over each created thing and being, and observing: “It is good.” God, source of all being, goodness, beauty, wholeness, and therefore, holiness, puts a stamp of approval, a stamp of holiness, on all of creation. Holiness or sanctity doesn’t come from a person’s own heroism or efforts, but from the fact that s/he is “gifted”, graced, with God’s own life and motivated by God to share God’s life and presence with others. Holiness, therefore, is an ideal, but a realizable ideal, meant to help build up the Church and, indeed, all of human society. It’s not just for a few select souls, but for all of us. Despite our being sinners before God, Jesus nevertheless says: “I come not to call the righteous, but sinners.
Through Baptism into Christ, holiness becomes part of our spiritual DNA. Plunged into the very life of God, which is love and service, we’re one-ed to God and to one another. Jesus is the unique pattern and model for humankind, living as the Holy One who loved God to the point of identification, and loved others as a servant, attending to their pain, hunger and need. None of us has the luxury of saying: “But being a saint, being holy, isn’t for me -- it may be for the canonized saints, but surely not for me.” That’s an evasion of one’s baptismal commitment. It’s never a question of “worthiness”, but of willingness: willingness to deliberately commit oneself in love to God, and willingness to commit oneself to the service of one’s sisters and brothers.
Saints aren’t just select heroes chosen by the Church, but all of us who’ve been reborn in Jesus and His Spirit through Baptism, and who take seriously the pledge we’ve made to follow Jesus. In that covenant we declare that we’ll resist evil, and return to the Lord when our weakness and selfishness overcome our resolve. More importantly, we pledge to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ by what we say and by what we do each day. We agree to seek and serve God in all people, to love them as we love ourselves. In the cause of justice and peace, we agree to respect every person’s dignity. Dom Hélder Camara, late Brazilian Archbishop, summed it up this way:
...Let no one be scandalized if I frequent
Those who are considered unworthy
Or sinful. Who is not a sinner?
Let no one be alarmed if I am seen
With compromised and dangerous people,
On the left or the right,
Let no one bind me to a group.
My door, my heart, must be open
To everyone, absolutely everyone.

Lesbia Scott composed the popular “saints” hymn, #293 in our Hymnal, I Sing a Song of the Saints of God,  along with other children’s hymns, which she sang to her own children in the 1920’s. It caught on in the U.S. during the 1940’s, particularly after it was set to a new tune by a retired Episcopal priest, The Rev. John Henry Hopkins, Jr. Her hymn celebrates the kind of holy people, “saints”, whom you and I run into all the time. It gives just a sampling of a veritable catalog of folks who continually inspire us to become more “holy” as well as more “whole” in our lives: doctors and nurses, farmers and field workers, soldiers, martyrs, school students, seafarers and fisher folk, church workers, train operators, taxi drivers and passengers, shopkeepers, even priests; people who not only serve tea, but Starbucks barristas, restaurant wait, cooking and cleaning staff, bosses and co-workers, teachers and fellow students, neighbors and friends. The thing which we all have in common, as the hymn notes, is that they’re “just folks like me” and you.
To become holy means to become whole, integrated, communal, as human persons and as followers of Jesus. Though that is a lifetime project, and a costly one at that, none of us can weasel out of it. Jesus has pledged to all of us who “labor”: “I will give you rest.” Jesus renews that promise to you and me each time we come forward, hands outstretched, to share his Body and Blood in the Eucharist: the “communion of saints”.
Perhaps the key sentence in Matthew’s Gospel today is the one where Jesus says: “The greatest among you will be your servant…” It’s a really important message during this important time of transition in the Church’s life. What Jesus is talking about in the sentence quoted is servant leadership. Speaking from my own 25 years of experience in my own Diocese, especially in mutual parish ministry in several churches, servant leadership isn’t something new in the Church. Nevertheless, it’s taken many folks a while to absorb exactly what the Book of Common Prayer is saying in the Outline of Faith (p. 855): “Who are the ministers of the Church? The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons. What is the ministry of the laity? The ministry of lay persons is to represent [re-present] Christ and his Church; to bear witness [martyr] to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church…” 
Please note that phrase: “...according to the gifts given them…” “Servant leader” doesn’t mean that every single member is called to be a Senior Warden, or the director of the Altar Guild, or a Convention delegate, or a Church School teacher. But every member is called to be a servant leader, “according to the gifts given them”. The very best way in which one can be a true minister in one’s local community of faith is, as Jesus recommends, to be willing to serve, according to the gifts given to you.
I was totally amazed when I Googled “Servant Leadership” and found how widespread this concept has been and is, not only in the Church, but in the secular, particularly business and management, sector of the world for some time now. Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990), who formally coined and defined the words “servant leadership” in the secular setting, lists 10 characteristics  which describe a servant leader:
- Listening: not just hearing, but actively listening; paying attention to others’ unspoken needs; supporting others in decisions.
- Empathy: putting oneself in the others’ shoes, so to speak; trying to understand their point of view; respecting and appreciating others.
- Healing: attending to both one’s self and others; helping to resolve conflict in ways that educate and help others grow and mature; utilizing humor and fun, and creating an atmosphere free of the fear of failure.
- Awareness: again, both of oneself and others; really “being there” when communicating with others.
- Persuasion: not by exerting power, status, or rank, but influencing others by being clear, speaking from conviction, and by reasoning together.
- Conceptualization: thinking “outside the box”; looking with vision beyond day-to-day realities and limits to what can be; setting specific goals and strategies to achieve them.
- Foresight: learning about the past so as to better understand the current reality, and being able to foresee the likely outcome of situations as well as their consequences.
- Stewardship: holding the institution in trust for the greater good of its members and of others in the surrounding society, by advocating for honesty, openness and accountability.
- Commitment to peoples’ growth: recognizing the other’s intrinsic value, beyond simply what they do or can do; encouraging others to nurture their gifts and their spiritual lives; welcoming ideas or input by anyone, and involving others in decision-making through consensus.
- Building community: dedicating oneself to find ways to build an ever stronger community within the institution, as well as trying to develop genuine community within the surrounding society.
The greatest among you will be your servant…” Undoubtedly, the finest summary of these, Jesus words in the Gospel, in a Christian context, are found in St. Paul’s encouragement to the Ephesian Christian community: “I...beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…

...Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up of the body of Christ…

...speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped...promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:1-3; 7; 12; 15-16)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Homely Take On The Great Commandment

There’s a story about a famous entertainer who was in a midwestern community, speaking about his conversion to Jesus Christ. He talked about the time before his conversion when he knew that God existed, but didn’t yet know God, in the sense of having a personal relationship. Two older men were sitting in the audience, one of whom was almost totally deaf. “What’s that young feller talkin’ about?”, he said to his neighbor. His friend answered: “Talkin’ ‘bout him and God.” “Well, what’s he sayin’?”, asks the first man. “Sayin’ how they’d howdy’d, but never shook”, came the reply.
How often haven’t you and I felt that we’ve “howdy’d” with God (or others), but never “shook”? It’s one thing to know about God. It’s an entirely different thing to know God, at least to the extent that a human being can.
In last Sunday’s Gospel, we saw the Pharisees and Herodians ganging up on Jesus with a sticky political question. Immediately following this, in fact, on the same day, the Sadducees try their hand at testing Jesus with an equally tricky question about the Levirate law regarding marriage. The Law provided that, if a man died childless, his brother would marry the wife to produce children for the deceased. The Sadducees’ question posed the possibility of seven brothers successively marrying the woman, being childless, then dying. “At the resurrection,” they asked, “which of the seven brothers will be her husband? They were all married to her.”  The idea was to make belief in the resurrection of the dead, which the Sadducees did not believe that the Torah taught, appear ridiculous. Matthew notes that Jesus’ response “silenced the Sadducees”, literally, in Greek, his wisdom “muzzled them...shut them up”.
In Matthew’s narrative today (22:34-46), the Pharisees are back at it with a question which goes to the very heart of the Law, the Torah, which constituted the framework for Hebrew living. One of the Pharisee legal experts asks: “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Discussions of this point were common, apparently, among the Jewish rabbis. There were, already in Jesus‘ time, some 613 prescriptions of the Law which people were required to observe: 248 positive requirements, and 365 prohibitions. Whichever one Jesus picked, the Pharisees reckoned, he would have to downgrade the importance of the others, and would thereby show himself to be inconsistent, if not actually blasphemous, about the Law.
Jesus’ responds with a brilliant summary of the Mosaic Law. He quotes Deuteronomy 6:4-9, called the Great Shema because of the opening word: “Hear/Listen, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” This is very sacred to every Jew as the commandment which governs the people’s day-to-day responsibility to their God. It continues: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, (a reference to phylacteries) and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates…” (a reference to mezuzas, which were affixed to observant Jews’ entrance-ways.
The second commandment which Jesus quotes is Leviticus 19:18, expressing one’s responsibility to other human beings: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
In quoting these two precepts, Jesus summarizes the essence of the Covenant, that intimate relationship which God formed with his people. The whole history of Israel’s relationship with God involves the conviction that, whatever else is required, two things most certainly are: 
viz., total commitment to the Lord God, and regard for and care about the neighbor.
These two commandments, love of God and love of the neighbor, reveal the grounding, the foundation, the intention of the Law, which, for a faithful Jew, meant God’s will. To “keep the Law” meant doing what God wants, and what God wants is total dedication to Godself and a commitment to caring for the neighbor, whoever and wherever. We’d be misreading the Scriptures if we saw these two precepts as simply principles of personal ethics, though they are that too. Even more, these two precepts are to be the governing guidelines, the norms, both of the believing community and of society, over both of which God is sovereign.
For a Christian, to be a member of God’s people, to be in covenant with the Divine, is to be a member of the gathered community, the ekklesía, the ones “called forth” through Baptism in Jesus the Christ. The full reality of that means that we’ve been “converted”, “turned around and toward” not only God, but also the neighbor.
The Pharisees were experts in knowing the Law, in knowing and teaching about God, yet often neglected and ignored the people whom they taught. Jesus contends that truly knowing God necessarily includes regarding and caring for all our neighbors’ needs also. It’s a call to a habitual relationship of love. It means that you’ve not only “howdy’d” with God and one another, but that you’ve also most definitely “shook” with both too.
The meaning of the word “love” has unfortunately become cheapened through the centuries, in both Christian and secular circles, to the point where today it’s more often associated with a warm, fuzzy feeling. But love is far more than just “feeling good” about someone. The love of which Jesus speaks involves one’s will, one’s conscious choice. To love God means that you and I deliberately choose to dedicate our whole life to God in an attitude of awe and obedience, in a steady, consistent turning over of our whole life and conduct to God: in worship, in self-giving service, and in fulfilling our responsibilities to God in every respect.
But that kind of genuine love of God can exist only if, along with it, there’s also a sustained determination by each of us to act toward every fellow human being with God’s compassion, justice, caring, and good will. And that’s a hard saying for many of us.
Love doesn’t necessarily imply that we always react positively to people, or that we will like every person, or feel good about them. It does, however, mean that we’re determined to make the choice of at least acknowledging every person as he/she is, and are willing to feed, clothe, 
house, care for, to desire justice, education, and a decent environment for that neighbor, and then to act on this the very best that one is able. That’s not always convenient or easy for any of us, and we’ll be in constant tension, grappling with that precept probably our whole lives.
Yet, there’s no way around Jesus’ words: “You shall love the Lord your shall love your neighbor as yourself.” At Baptism you and I committed ourselves to this, either personally or through our parents and godparents. Each time we renew the Baptismal Covenant throughout the year, we recommit ourselves to it. We solemnly affirm to “seek and serve Christ in all persons”, loving the neighbor as we love ourselves, “with God’s help”. We agree to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.
Baptism is the “howdy” between us and God, and between us and all others who come into our lives. But, as they say, “Words are cheap.” The true test of our commitment is the “shake”, the daily handshake we extend to God and to one another, sometimes generously, sometimes reluctantly and haltingly. It’s a sign of invitation to another person to become part of our life. Paul summarizes it so beautifully at the end of his message to the Thessalonians today (1 Thessalonians 2:8): “...we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves…   

Friday, October 21, 2011

St. Gaspar's Way: Apostles While Working, Contemplatives At Home

Today is the liturgical commemoration of St. Gaspar del Bufalo (1786-1837), Roman priest and founder of the Society of the Precious Blood, whose original purpose included missionary work -- being "sent" -- whether at home or in foreign lands. The Society has changed its name intentionally in recent years to "The Missionaries of the Precious Blood". In Gaspar's time, the priest and brother missionaries were sent to renew and reinvigorate diocesan clergy, to literally preach the Gospel and minister to the needs of farmers, laborers, families and young people through parish retreats and what amounted to "revivals", and were even involved in outreach to gangs of banditti, not unlike the Mafia or urban gangs of our time.

When the Missionaries of the Precious Blood came to America in December, 1843, via a Swiss priest member, Father Francis de Sales Brunner, and his companions, the "being sent" took on a slightly different form in a pioneer America which was then only 67 years old. Embarking on a primitive and difficult way of life, the Missionaries eventually set up many missions, parishes, schools, and a seminary primarily in northwestern Ohio. Over nearly 170 years the Missionaries eventually formed the seven Provinces which exist today: in the U.S., Portugal, Italy, Poland, and Austria, with missions in Mexico, Chile, Guatemala, Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Guinea Bissau, Tanzania, India, and Vietnam. While this would probably blow Gaspar's mind, were he here to see it today, he would also be exceedingly gratified and thankful to see the rich fruit of his and his early brothers' and sisters' intense efforts.

Gaspar, who was admittedly somewhat of a high-strung individual, nevertheless distinguished himself from an early age on as someone very close to God. He could, indeed, be called a genuinely "pure soul". The apostolate he envisioned from his earliest priestly days as a Canon at San Marco in Rome was rather diverse, "but one sustained by a single ideal", according to Father Beniamino Conti, C.PP.S.: that of promoting, in every way open to him, the devotion to the Most Precious Blood with passionate and ardent love. Blessed Pope John XXIII, a true "fan" of Gaspar's, described him in 1960 as the "distinguished champion" of the devotion, and said: "the Most Precious Blood was the point of light of the apostolate of St. Gaspar del Bufalo, the glory of Rome..." Again, in 1960, he referred to Gaspar as "the true and greatest apostle of the devotion to the Most Precious Blood in the world."

In his book St. Gaspar del Bufalo: Apostle of the Blood of Christ, Part II, Father Conti notes: "...Gaspar appears as the one who, absorbed and strengthened by the cry of the Blood of Jesus, presented it to the souls of his time..." If you read Gaspar's writings, you can't help but notice the urgency he displays to make people aware of this mystery of faith. Blessed Pope John XXIII indirectly confirmed the significance of devotion to the Precious Blood when, in a January, 1963 surprise visit to the Missionaries at Santa Maria in Trivio, where Gaspar's tomb is, he said: "However, outstanding was a sort of revelation which [Gaspar] experienced concerning the devotion to the Most Precious Blood of our Lord, a devotion cherished by his sons and daughters [the Sister Adorers of the Blood of Christ, and later the Sisters of the Precious Blood], and by so many others. And they have cooperated here at Rome in the fashioning of that combination which appeals to the humble Vicar of Christ of today, and to those of all times, because it is found in the Sacred Liturgy, namely that triple devotion: to the Name of Jesus, to the Heart of Jesus, to the Blood of Jesus...

As I offered Morning Prayer today I glanced at the missionary crucifix and chain which was presented to me at my ordination on May 31, 1964, as I became a Missionary of the Precious Blood. Though I've long since been released from my vow of fidelity to Gaspar's Society, I've tried to carry the missionary spirit of it all these years and into my ministry as an Episcopal priest. If there's one thing the Episcopal Church is dead serious about, it's mission: the "sending out", the commission, which each of us, clergy or lay, received in our Baptism. In gazing at the crucifix this morning, it occurred to me that Gaspar's vision and dedication to mission in the power of the Blood of Jesus, the symbol of Love which is willing to give completely of itself, is applicable to all of us, regardless of our state in life.

Gaspar refers, in his sixth circular letter to the Community in 1832, just 18 years after the Society was founded, to: "this most disastrous time in which we are living. Ungrateful beyond comparison and possessed of an extremely hardened heart is the person who does not feel and perceive the obligation of serving the honor and glory of Jesus Christ..." In an earlier circular letter, in 1826, he talks about missionaries representing "so many mystic stones fashioned for the work to be done, reminiscent of the words of St. Paul: 'You are part of a building that has the apostles and prophets for its foundations, and Christ Jesus himself for its main cornerstone'..." He urges his brothers to make three resolves: to God, to oneself, and to the Community in which they live. 1) To God: "...As you make your way in virtue, the daily bread with which you are to nourish and strengthen your souls in profound humility is that vivid awareness of the presence of God..." 2) To oneself: "...Your holiness of life and your good example should therefore be a continuous Mission to the people..." 3) To the Community in which they live: "Be lovers of silence; shun criticism and ridicule...Let all things be stepping stones to heaven...Whoever sows the field, sows with fatigue and labor. In the field of the Gospel, we sow with patience and suffering...Let the Society and every one of its members be dear to you..." What better resolves could guide our way as we're "sent out" to do our work in spreading the Good News of the Love who is Jesus the Christ?

Always aware that a deep spiritual practice is the essential foundation for the life of a missionary, one sent to proclaim the glad tidings of Christ's love, Gaspar concludes: "...Our hearts must be free from all things foreign to our calling and occupation. Love to talk with God. Be an apostle while working in the Missions and a contemplative at home..."     

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Giving God What's God's

In a classic TV scenario, the lawyer cross-examines a witness by posing a question with the demand: “Answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.” The witness starts to explain, but the lawyer shouts, “Just answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’!”, giving the impression that if the witness isn’t trying to cover up something, then he/she will give a simple, neat, clear-cut answer.
We also have ample evidence from the current and other electoral campaigns of politicians who’ve mastered the ability to deal with questions in various forums: news conferences, interviews, etc. Hecklers in a crowd often push questions designed to catch or embarrass a speaker. And there are people who earnestly seek information and want clear, crisp answers about where an official or candidate stands on issues. All, whether reporters, hecklers or honest seekers, want a “Yes” or a “No”.
Politicians, especially, seem to develop great skill in responding to questions without really answering them. Seldom do they feel able to say that they don’t know the answer, or that they don’t choose to answer, or to admit that their position is somewhat ambiguous. So they learn to fashion their answers by simply talking and talking, until no one is any longer sure what the question was. Or, they simply answer the questions which they want to answer: not the question asked.
If a person is being forthright and honest, it isn’t unreasonable to expect a clear, unequivocal “Yes” or “No”, or so it would seem. But, even lawyers, reporters, hecklers or seekers know that simple “Yes” or “No” answers aren’t always posssible. Persons pressed in that direction will either say less or more than they want to say, or ought to say, to give an honest answer.
In the Gospel passage (Matthew 22:15-22) Jesus shows that he’s obviously mastered the art of dealing with the difficult question, particularly with those who wanted him out of the way. Notice how Matthew frames this incident: in the opening line, with the Pharisees and Herodians going away and plotting to entrap Jesus; and in the last line, leaving Jesus and going away after hearing him. This, and the fact that they send “their disciples” to do their dirty work, their insincere flattery of Jesus, and their hypocrisy in posing the question, all demonstrate their true ulterior motives.
When fielding a question, it’s important for someone to determine why the question is being asked in the first place, the motive behind it. The very manner in which Jesus’ opponents ask the question raises some red flags. “Teacher, we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Bear in mind that these are the same people whom Matthew records earlier as having several times accused Jesus of casting out demons by the authority of demons, and who had accused him and his disciples of breaking the Sabbath Law.
Jesus, “aware of their malice” Matthew says, pulls no punches: “Why do you test me, you hypocrites?” In blowing their cover, Jesus makes clear to all the hearers that the real purpose for the Pharisees and Herodians asking their question is to entrap him, as they’d demonstrated so often before this, and to discredit him in the eyes of the people. Not surprisingly the Jewish people hated paying taxes as much as we do, especially to an occupying foreign government. At least the Pharisees did, being lay Jews committed to observing the entire Mosaic Law as faithfully as possible, even the parts which only the priests had to observe. The Herodians, on the other hand, who supported the Herodian dynasty, and were corrupt puppets of the Roman occupiers, whose palms had been greased by their overlords many times over, were less opposed to rock the boat. At that time there was a group of rebellious Jews who especially advocated withholding taxes from the Romans, since they considered it immoral, even treasonous, to support such a government. If Jesus had answered the question “Yes”, his loyalty to his fellow Jews would be called into doubt. Had he answered “No”, he’d have been seen by the Romans to be advocating rebellion.
In order to shift the discussion towards the real purpose of the question, Jesus asks his opponents for a denarius, the coin used for the head tax which every adult male Jew was required to pay, and which was inscribed “Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus”. Note the fact that Jesus’ opponents possessed such a coin, showing that they already knew that it was lawful to pay the tax. Jesus recognizes what they’re up to, and forces them to answer his question, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” One can imagine them mumbling, “The emperor’s.” Jesus then declares: “So give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Any Jew worth his/her salt, especially a Pharisee, would know beyond any doubt that everything, without exception, belongs to God. The prophet Isaiah (45:5) had summarized that well: “I am the Lord and there is no other; besides me there is no God.” 
In saying, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's," Jesus simply confirms what the questioners themselves have already been doing. Without answering the original question, Jesus intimates that since they pay taxes, it must be lawful; it was something all Jewish citizens did. Being no Zealot, Jesus agrees that taxes should be paid. Matthew had previously underscored this in Chapter 17 where Jesus sends Peter to get a coin out of a fish’s mouth to “pay the [temple] tax for both of us.” 
The core and focus of Jesus’ answer to the original question is his statement, "Give to God the things that are God's". God's claim on every human being has no limits; it embraces all aspects of creation and life, even paying taxes. This second part of Jesus’ answer moves well beyond a simple “Yes” to the question of whether it’s right to fulfill civic obligations. God has claim to everything in our lives and in creation. God is the source of truth, and you and I are committed to live by that truth. God is the source of justice, and we’re committed to making that justice real in our society and in our world, something which, for the Christian, is not optional. When civic authority expresses something of God’s truth and justice, we rejoice and support that. When it falls short of God’s truth and justice, our Christian obligation is to stand in judgment of what’s happening and to seek ways in which God’s truth and justice may be upheld and more fully embodied.
Each of us, in being faithful to God, has the right to be respected by others. While we have civic obligations, each of us must be allowed to live before God and maintain the integrity of our conscience. The faithfulness to God of some, for example, may prevent them from bearing arms for their country, or may lead others to bypass laws which they deem unjust, in order to achieve true justice according to their conscience. Others, equally faithful to God, may see things differently. Such decisions, on either side, may not be taken lightly or cheaply, but are to be made following the dictates of one’s conscience before God and being willing to accept the consequences, whatever the price. Holding deep convictions, yet living, working, and worshipping together with people who don’t share the same convictions requires great openness and deep humility: the kind that the great Abraham Lincoln demonstrated. When asked, during America’s Civil War, if he thought God was on the side of the Union cause, he replied that his only hope was that he was on God’s side.
There’s no formula which can tell us exactly how we’re to give God what belongs to God, but there are hints and clues. We give to God when our effort and energy is directed in ways which give health and wholeness, rather than divisiveness, to our world, our environment, our community, our parish, our family. We give to God when we reach out in love and caring to the real needs of other people, regardless of who they are or how they are. We give to God when our resources are shared in order to witness to the teaching of Jesus‘ love, mercy and compassion. We give to God when we fervently seek out those things and join hands and hearts with those persons which truly make for peace and justice for all.